Thursday, June 26, 2008

By the time Hannah Arendt (Rena Cherry Brown) pops into “This Storm Is What We Call Progress,” dispensing chicken soup and peppering her dizzying monologue with allusions to Martin Heidegger and the dark allure of the Nazis, you are completely at sea and cannot help but wonder, “What does this have to do with mysticism and the Jewish question again?”

Jason Grote’s play, which entwines magic realism, political drama and screwball comedy, is being staged by Rorschach Theatre under the direction of Jenny McConnell Frederick, who serves as more of a theme wrangler than a director. It deals with the Kabbala, the coming of the Messiah, the nation of Israel, Jewish self-hatred, anti-Semitism in general and Jewish ethnic identity. Oh, and did we mention there’s also a love story - a fevered union between Lily (Sara Barker), a wealthy disciple of the Kabbala, and Adam (Karl Miller), a half-Jewish, half-Irish actor?

If the confounding, engrossing play had stuck to just the touchy and divisive topic of “Jews are white people now,” it would have been more than enough for two acts. However, the Jewish mysticism angle takes over “This Storm” to the point where the other issues become rather tangential. That’s not entirely a bad thing, as the Kabbala is the most fully realized aspect of the production. An eerie spell is cast by scenic designer Robbie Hayes’ set, with its dusty shelves full of vaguely magical bric-a-brac and David C. Ghatan’s lighting provides spooky atmospheric effects.

The love story also is full of mystery and mysticism. Adam meets Lily in a curious recording studio run by an old woman called the Woman With Silver Skin (Rena Cherry Brown, in a dual role) who has prophetic and spell-casting powers. Lily is the Woman’s latest acolyte, and when Adam bursts in during a rite, the play becomes a Jewish version of “Rosemary’s Baby.” Adam’s attraction to Lily draws him into the Woman’s ancient, oblique netherworld, where there is much tongue-ripping and bloodletting.

It’s easy to lose your way in “This Storm”(the title is from a Walter Benjamin essay on a Paul Klee painting) but luckily, actors like Mr. Miller can make the incomprehensible watchable. Miss Barker, who recently played Jackie-O at the Washington Shakespeare Company, seems to have cornered the market on unhinged characters, her Lily being frighteningly fragile - a contrast to Miss Brown’s thundering, omnipotent Woman.

Though the evocation of the Kabbalah captures your imagination, you emerge not knowing any more about the Jewish mystical practice than when you came in.

WHAT: “This Storm Is What We Call Progress,” by Jason Grote

WHERE: Rorschach Theatre at the Davis Performing Arts Center, Georgetown University

WHEN: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Through July 20.

TICKETS: $12 to $20

PHONE: 800/494-8497



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